It was a colleague who first approached restaurant owner and chef Abigail Hitchcock about holding dark dining events in her Greenwich Village restaurant Camaje. While the unusual notion of serving diners in the dark intrigued her, she was skeptical about how well the events would fare.
“I sat on the fence initially,” said Hitchcock, who held her first dark-dining event in 2005. “I wasn't sure if my customers would like the idea, but the experience proved more fun and profitable than I thought. A couple years into it, I was amazed that we were still doing them. We're now in our sixth year, and our twice-monthly events are almost always sold out.”
Dark dining's disruptive appeal has won a small but dedicated following. It also illustrates how novelty can win clientele for enterprising restaurateurs.
Dana Salisbury is the creator and director for New York-based Dark Dining Projects, which orchestrates the dark dining events at Camaje and various venues across the United States and internationally. She reports increasing interest in her dining events, which include dance performances.
“Dark dining appeals to a wide variety of people—from individuals celebrating special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries and marriage proposals, to diners seeking a new experience, to businesses wishing to hold unique fundraisers,” says Salisbury.
The dark-dining phenomenon
Rooted in Europe, where the concept has been enjoyed for years, dark dining ensures that dinner guests are unable to see their food and surroundings, either through the use of blindfolds or completely darkened rooms. While the execution of the dining experience varies, the concept is the same: The inability to see your food sharpens your other senses and lets you experience your meal more acutely.
Dark diners report foods are more flavorful and smell headier. They also hear sounds they may not have noticed before and experience an elevated sense of touch. Diners at Salisbury’s events, for instance, feel the dancers when they pass by, and many dark diners choose to dispense with utensils and use their hands to eat.
“A phenomenon occurs after a few minutes in the dark,” said Christopher Lynch, General Manager for Opaque . The company has dark-dining restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where diners are served in pitch-black dining rooms by legally blind waiters.
“Usually around the appetizers and entrees, diners begin experiencing more subtle flavors and have a noticeably heightened sense of hearing, which helps them paint a picture of the room in their mind,” Lynch said.
At Salisbury’s dark-dining events, guests wear comfortable blindfolds that completely black out their surroundings. “The guests put the blindfolds on not to intimidate but to elucidate,” she said. “Plunging into darkness liberates people in a deep way. Because they can't see, things aren't superficial. Instead of being on the outside watching and judging, they pull in and truly experience.”
Sarah Young is a New York dance performer and instructor who has worked Salisbury’s dark dining events and experienced them herself. “Because I wasn't overstimulated visually while dining, I discovered a balance between what was going on inside my head and outside—and I could actually hear myself think,” Young said. “I forgot all about my insecurities in terms of how I might look to others and became immersed in the experience and accepting of the unknown. My companion and I communicated on a much deeper level than we would have in an ordinary dining experience.”
Dark dining reactions
Responses to the dark dining experience are generally positive with diners remarking that they feel refreshed and even a little more self-confident.
“The experience is eye-opening—no pun intended,” says Lynch. “By being in the dark and having to rely on their other senses, people experience a different set of emotions. Afterwards, they'll express how enjoyable, enlightening and fulfilling the experience was. We've even had individuals with a family member who is blind get very emotional.”
Other industries can learn from dark dining’s success
The buzz surrounding dark dining is every business owner's goal. While the concept brings a unique idea to the table, good ideas still have to be well-executed to be successful. For this reason, it's important that entrepreneurs know what they want from their business, set up a good structure from the outset and believe in what they're doing.
“If you look in the mirror every day and know what you're doing is right, then it probably is,” Lynch said. Though following a charted course is advised, he also suggests staying flexible. When Opaque first started, they planned on adopting the European concept which requires diners to be surprised by the meals served.
“Many of our customers—perhaps to balance out the uncertainty of eating in the dark—wanted to choose their own meals,” Lynch said. “As a result, we now offer the option to select menu items or be surprised.”
The lesson: Those who come up with a unique concept and add a dash of mystery and surprise are likely to capture the fancy and dedication of customers.
Julie Bawden-Davis has been a journalist since 1985. She’s written for many publications, including Entrepreneur, Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle.